OAKLAND – A’s manager Bob Melvin took one look in Sonny Gray’s eyes Tuesday and knew good things were in store from his right-hander.
Gray was back in vintage form against the Los Angeles Angels, racking up strikeouts and showing off a slider that gives opponents one more pitch to fret over.
But it wouldn’t be the A’s unless things were somehow off-kilter, no? With their young starter mowing down hitters, Oakland couldn’t break through against Angels lefty Wade LeBlanc, he of the 5.24 ERA coming into Tuesday.
Home plate seemed like some distant, unreachable destination for A’s base runners in a 2-0 defeat before an energized home crowd at the Coliseum. Oakland advanced just two runners as far as third base, as those good offensive vibes from the previous two days didn’t carry over.
[RECAP: Gray, A's edged out by Angels 2-0]
The A’s haven’t won three consecutive games since Aug. 7-9. Though they inched closer to a wild-card berth thanks to the Seattle Mariners’ continued slide, Tuesday’s performance at the plate again raised doubts about what they’ll be able to do if they are indeed part of the five-team American League playoff field.
“I’d say it’s one of the major themes of the last month-and-a-half,” outfielder Sam Fuld said. “We’ve definitely had our opportunities, and we have to take advantage of that. With the way Sonny pitched, it’s unfortunate we weren’t able to come through and get a few across.”
With five games remaining, the A’s are tied with the Kansas City Royals for the AL’s top wild card spot at 86-71. The Royals, who took five of seven from Oakland in the season series, won’t be a picnic to play in a do-or-die matchup wherever it’s played. But the A’s would certainly like to claim that top spot and host the wild card game next Tuesday.
The Mariners are three games back of the A’s and Royals. The top two non-division winners earn wild card berths, and the A’s magic number is three in relation to Seattle.
Gray certainly positioned his teammates for victory. He struck out a career-high 12 over seven innings. The first run off him came when Erick Aybar raced home on a 1st-and-3rd situation in which catcher Geovany Soto didn’t as much as glance toward third before firing to second on Efren Navarro’s steal attempt.
“There was miscommunication on that,” Melvin said. “Aybar was coming down the line pretty good, and we need to stop the runner there.”
The only other damage off Gray came on Gordon Beckham’s sixth-inning solo homer.
“That was terrific,” Melvin said of Gray’s performance. “He was up for it today. You could see when he came in the dugout, the look in his eye, you could tell he was gonna get after it.”
Gray’s outing surely was a bright spot. After posting a 5.05 ERA over his previous nine starts, he gave up just three hits in his 98-pitch effort. Normally one to lean on his fastball and curve, Gray mixed in his slider and got Angels hitters to flail at it all evening.
“Everything was working pretty well,” Gray said. “My fastball had good movement and my breaking pitches, I put ‘em where I wanted.”
The A’s outhit the Angels 7-3, but unfortunately that’s not the column on the scoreboard that matters. What chances the A’s had, they squandered. They managed five hits but no runs off LeBlanc over 5 1/3 innings. They loaded the bases with two outs in the eighth against sidearm reliever Joe Smith, but Stephen Vogt flied out to right. In his previous at-bat in the sixth, with two aboard, Vogt chased a high fastball way out of the strike zone for the third out.
“I left a small village in scoring position tonight, which is really frustrating,” Vogt said.
Frustrating, but not all that unexpected from the A’s based on how the last several weeks have gone. They’re 14-27 since Aug. 10, and it’s been the rare occurrence where their pitching, hitting and defense all come together in the same game.
As for Gray, he took little consolation from his own shining performance.
“We lost. Whatever I did wasn’t good enough,” he said. “All that really matters is winning.”